Selling the Detroit Institute of Art Collection… What’s the Big Deal?

Van Gogh, “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat,” 1887

If you’re searching out for something –
Don’t try so hard

But if you fall and take a tumble –
It won’t be far

The Detroit Masonic Temple is considered to be the world’s largest Masonic Temple. Detroit is the largest city in Michigan, and economically both have fallen far.

Detroit was founded in 1701, two years before Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg in Russia. Both cities pride themselves on their encyclopedic art collections, acquired at the respective peaks of their economic growths. In the 1920s and 1930s, important paintings were sold from the Hermitage museum to raise capital for a cash-strapped nation. The sales were not publicized because there was no pride in peddling cultural treasures, and decades later, these sales are still perceived with regret.

Earlier this year, Kevyn Orr was appointed to the position of an emergency manager for Detroit, tasked to review its finances and to make recommendations as to how Detroit can restructure it’s reported $18 billion debt and, if possible, avoid declaring bankruptcy. That was in March. Under Orr’s lead, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July. As a result, Detroit is now in the midst of the “largest bankruptcy by a local government in U.S. history.”

During his assessment, Orr reviewed Detroit’s assets and raised the possibility of selling some or all of the paintings from the Detroit Art Institute to pay the city’s creditors. The Michigan Legislation did not take to this idea kindly. On June 4, 2013, the Michigan Senate passed a draft of the new Bill, which would make the sale of the Institute’s collection items exceedingly difficult. The Bill is still pending.

According to the proposed Bill, proceeds from any art deaccessioned from the museum would only be available for collection growth and not downsizing, salaries, etc. As proposed, the Bill would “amend the Art Institute Authorities Act to require an art institute to adhere to the Code of Ethics for Museums published by the American Alliance of Museums…” Specifically, the ownership of the collection would entail “the highest public trust and [carry] with it the presumption of rightful ownership, permanence, care, documentation, accessibility and responsible disposal.” Thus “Disposal of collections through sale, trade, or research is solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission…  Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.”

On June 6, 2013, The New York Times ran a brief story about Jack White, a musician and Detroit native, who independently paid $143,000 in back taxes for the Masonic Temple in Detroit, effectively saving it from being auctioned off. With the Detroit Institute of Art be as lucky? With all the news covering Detroit and its financial troubles and as the art auction houses are eying the Detroit Art Institute for spoils, the fate of the art collection remains uncertain.

Sources: The Guardian; “Jack White Pays Taxes of a Detroit Concert Hall,” The New York Times, June 6, 2013, C3; Michigan Proposed Legislation (Senate Bill 401); The World Street Journal (July 19, 2013); The Art Newspaper, July 24, 2013.

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